The Land of the Bears
Californians are surrounded by bears. Most of these creatures are not the coy, mischievous black bears that prowl Yosemite campgrounds after dark, raiding ice chests and eating bologna sandwiches out of "wildlife resistant" trash bins. No, these are massive, fearless, humpbacked, barrel-chested, dagger-clawed grizzly bears—and they are everywhere. They lurk behind picnic tables in city parks, patrol the entrances to government buildings, gnash their teeth next to bus stops, and splash in fountains alongside children. Sometimes they wear plastic pink leis and funny hats. During an hour's walk on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, an intrepid naturalist can view at least twenty-seven resident grizzly bears in an area of just three square miles. Scientists have not attempted a current census, but the state 's grizzlies must number in the hundreds of thousands. California truly is the land of the bears.
Of course, none of these animals are alive. They are all only images and monuments. In the mid-nineteenth century, California was home to as many as ten thousand living, breathing grizzly bears—a greater population density than in present-day Alaska, and around a fifth of all the grizzlies in the United States at the time. Zoologists believe that the California population constituted a unique subspecies: the California grizzly, or "chaparral bear," a label that referred to its affinity for the region's scrubby foothills and brush-covered mountains. The chaparral bear's numbers seem to have peaked around the time of the gold rush, in 1849, then plummeted during the second half of the nineteenth century. The last captive California grizzly died in 1911, and any remaining wild individuals probably perished before 1930.
By the time it went extinct, the California grizzly had become an indelible icon. It appeared on the state flag and seal. Artists had immortalized it in paintings and murals. The University of California had adopted it as a mascot. And hundreds of monuments commemorated its role in the state 's Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and early American histories (see figure 2). Today the grizzly's image appears on pendants and billboards and is inscribed on T-shirts and logos, carved in stone, and cast in bronze. These representations are all that remain of the chaparral bear. Most people hardly notice them. Yet references to the California grizzly—a oncecelebrated totem now vanquished, extinct, and largely forgotten—remain a ubiquitous presence in the lives of millions.
The California grizzly went extinct long before conservationists coined the term endangered species. Its story can serve only as a prelude to the debates that followed and that are the focus of subsequent chapters in this book. Yet the epic history of the grizzly bear in California, in addition to offering a grand tale of the American West, illustrates a crucial point for understanding more recent endangered species controversies. Although debates about wildlife extinction and conservation have changed much over the years, one thing remains the same: they have always been about the politics of place. In California there is no better species to illustrate this essential insight than the one most closely associated with the state 's indigenous history, colonial encounters, frontier origins, early development, political symbolism, and contemporary cultural landscape.
MONARCH—AN URSINE ENCOUNTER
In the spring of 1889, the reporter Allan Kelly left the cosmopolitan comforts of his San Francisco home bound for the rugged mountains of Ventura County in a still-remote corner of Southern California. He worked for the San Francisco Examiner, and his boss, William Randolph Hearst, had sent him on an extraordinary assignment. Kelly's goal was to capture and return with a live California grizzly bear. Doing so would prove the animals still existed. It would also enable Kelly's ambitious employer to generate publicity for his newspapers by presenting the citizens of San Francisco with a marvelous gift.
Kelly was a quick-witted observer and eloquent author. He loved the mountains, penned self-effacing accounts of his outdoor misadventures, and wrote about people and animals with humor, precision, and respect. According to Kelly, Hearst had selected him for the job because although the reporter had no experience as a trapper, he was "the only man on the paper who was supposed to know anything about bears." Hearst sent Kelly on the expedition only after having tried and failed to purchase a captive grizzly, for which he would have fabricated a harrowing tale of pursuit and capture. As Kelly would discover on the publication of his own heavily edited grizzly story, Hearst made a habit of encouraging his employees not to allow the facts to constrain their imagination.
Kelly set out for the little farming town of Santa Paula, where he would begin his adventure, in May. He spent a month in the area learning to build bear traps from stout oak beams, to ignore the locals' eccentric advice, and to distinguish real paw prints from the fake ones left by his untrustworthy advisers. By June he was ready to proceed, and he moved to a camp at seventy-five hundred feet on the forested slopes of Mount Piños some forty miles to the north. Three grizzlies visited Kelly and his assistants during their time on the mountain, but none of the bears took the crew's bait or wandered into the traps. In July Kelly's editor at the Examiner decided that the adventure had gone on long enough and ordered his reporter back to San Francisco. Kelly pleaded for more time, but the editor responded by revoking his funding and suspending his salary. With no assistants and no support, the unemployed journalist was on his own.
Having failed on Mount Piños, Kelly decided to move his camp, his burro, and his few remaining possessions east to the Tehachapi Mountains near Antelope Valley, where he hoped to find a bear that the locals called Old Pinto. To Kelly's surprise, tracking Old Pinto proved relatively easy. The bear strutted about the area as if he owned it, leaving tracks in the soil and scratches on the trees wherever he went. But capturing Old Pinto, who was wary enough to avoid the temptations of honey-and-mutton-baited traps, was another matter. Kelly was impressed with the bear's intelligence and instincts. He found himself surprised by the serenity of the forest and the reticence of the animals that lived there, and he grew ambivalent about what he increasingly viewed as his nefarious objective. "Many of my prejudices and all my storybook notions about the behavior of the carnivorae [sic] were discredited by experience," he wrote, "and I was forced to recognize the plain truth that the only mischievous animal, the only creature meditating and planning evil on that mountain ... was a man with a gun."
Word of Kelly's search soon spread, and mountain men for fifty miles in every direction set out their own traps in the hope of catching a suddenly valuable bear. In October Kelly got word that a syndicate of shepherds and trappers had captured a grizzly on Gleason Mountain, in what was then called the Sierra Madre and is now known as the San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles. Sure enough, when Kelly arrived at the site he found a massive grizzly in a stout cage. The group's watchman, a vaquero named Mateo, unaware of the visitor's identity, told Kelly that he planned to sell the animal to a big-city newspaperman for an exorbitant price. He was, however, open to other offers. The two men haggled a bit before Kelly purchased the bear for a bargain price. Kelly later wrote that it was "the only evidence of business capacity to be found in my entire career." But now he was alone in the mountains, nearly broke after a five-month mostly self-funded expedition, the owner of an ill-tempered half-ton grizzly bear that he somehow needed to get to San Francisco, four hundred miles away, to deliver to an unscrupulous publisher who had recently fired him and who might not even still want the beast.
Fortunately for Kelly, Hearst was thrilled. Yes, he still wanted the grizzly; yes, he wanted to name it Monarch, after one of his newspapers; and yes, he wanted Kelly to return to San Francisco with the animal at once. Now came the hard part. Monarch was not exactly a docile creature. For his first week in captivity, the bear "raged like a lunatic." He "bit and tore at the logs, hurled his great bulk against the sides and tried to enlarge every chink that admitted light" into his box cage. Eventually the beast tired, allowing Kelly and his hired team to fit the bear with chains for the trip ahead. That process required several days, and it cost Monarch his canine teeth, which he splintered while trying to rip off his shackles. After the chains came the temporary gag, a thick rope lashed through the bear's mouth and strapped around his ears to form a bridle, which was attached to a collar made of heavy Norwegian iron. Once Monarch was fully restrained, his captors removed the gag and finished readying him for the long journey north.
The trip took about two weeks. The first section, from the camp to the nearest wagon road, was the most difficult. Each evening Kelly's team would chain Monarch to a tree, and each morning they would load him up for the day's trip. This required roping the bear, binding him to "a rough skeleton sled," or "go-devil," then dragging the whole contraption, bear and all, down the mountain. It was not easy to find a team of horses that would submit to the task, and each morning Monarch fought back with "dogged persistency." He was an enormous and powerful animal, but in the end he was no match for four men on horses with chains and lassos. When they reached the road, the crew built a bigger cage, and Monarch spent the rest of the trip riding on wagons and trains. The bear had but one "tantrum" along the way, when a group of onlookers in the ramshackle depot of Mojave poked and prodded him with sharp sticks to try to make him stand. He had almost burst out of his cage when Kelly arrived to chase the gawkers away and pacify the bear with a sliced watermelon. After that, Monarch settled into the calm routine of a defeated but dignified captive.
The journey left a lifelong impression on both man and animal. By the time they reached San Francisco, according to Kelly, Monarch would "allow me to handle his chain and would take food from my hand.... Close acquaintance with the grizzly inspired me with genuine respect for his character and admiration for his indomitable courage." But the trip was tough on Monarch. According to the Examiner, the grueling voyage had left the great bear "travel-worn and thin.... His broken teeth trouble him some and it will be some time before he will feel as well as he did before he was caught." The paper assured its readers, however, that Monarch was "brightening up, and when the abrasions of his skin, made by ropes and chains, are healed up and his hair grows again on the bare spots he will be more presentable."
On November 10, around twenty thousand people gathered at Woodward's Garden—a long-shuttered zoo, museum, and theme park that was then in San Francisco's Mission District—to attend a reception celebrating Monarch's debut as the only California grizzly in captivity. It was a merry outing for most of the attendees. But for Kelly the day's festivities offered little cause for cheer. Looking back, he recalled that after Monarch's capture, the bear had "exhausted every means at his command to break out, and when convinced that he was beaten, he spent one whole day in grievous lamentation and then ceased his futile efforts. Monarch is a brave old fellow and he ought to be free in his native mountains. If he still regrets that he was captured I sympathize with him for I'm more than half sorry myself."
Kelly never said exactly why he was sorry. But he knew that California's wildlife was declining rapidly and that zoos were miserable places for most animals. His experience with Monarch had challenged him and changed him, and it seems safe to say that he had decided that wild creatures, particularly large and intelligent animals such as grizzlies, belonged in wild places. This was not a common belief at the time, but Kelly would be far from the last Californian to reach that conclusion.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CHAPARRAL BEAR
Before the arrival of European explorers, settlers, and missionaries in the late eighteenth century, grizzlies roamed throughout most of what is now California. They lived on the seashores, in the valleys, in the foothills, and in the mountains all the way up to the alpine zone. They favored grasslands, wetlands, woodlands, and brushlands—especially chaparral—but they ranged widely throughout the region's diverse landscapes, from the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades to the Coast, Transverse, and Peninsular Ranges, into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, and along coastal bluffs and prairies including the San Francisco Peninsula and the Los Angeles Basin (see map 2). The only part of California that grizzlies probably did not frequent was the eastern deserts. They did, however, wander all the way out to the desert fringe, especially during the sporadic years when the piñon trees produced their sumptuous crops of buttery pine nuts.
Unlike their relatives farther north, California grizzlies lived in a region with year-round resource availability. They remained active day and night, consumed a wide variety of foods, and had no need to hibernate. Grizzlies scavenged the carcasses of beached marine mammals, grazed on perennial grasses and seeds, gathered berries, and foraged for fruits and nuts. They rooted around like pigs in search of roots and bulbs, and after the introduction of European hogs, the bears ate them too. At times and places of abundant food—such as along rivers during steelhead spawning seasons or in oak woodlands during acorn mast years—grizzlies congregated in large numbers. Such a varied and plentiful diet produced some enormous animals. Male California grizzlies could grow to more than fifteen hundred pounds. This equals the maximum size of the largest grizzlies alive today, Alaska's Kodiak bears, which achieve their exceptional girth by the rather different strategy of specializing on salmon and hibernating for much of the year.
No one knows how many grizzlies lived in California before European contact. The great naturalist Joseph Grinnell, who served as the first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley and spearheaded California's first grassroots wildlife conservation campaign in the 1910s, calculated a pre-1830 population of 2,595 adult grizzlies. He based this number on historical records, assumptions about resource availability, and the size of grizzly ranges in other regions. He also noted that under favorable conditions, grizzlies were capable of rapid population growth. Yet Grinnell's numbers are only estimates. All we can say for sure is that grizzlies were probably always common in California, and much more so than their smaller cousins, the black bears, whose populations grizzlies appear to have limited through territorial aggression and competitive exclusion. Black bears are common throughout much of California today, but they probably only became so after the grizzlies' eradication.
Despite their robust size and large population, grizzlies were never the dominant land animal in California. For the first million years of the species's existence, the grizzly was just one member of a spectacular group of Pleistocene megafauna that included such formidable beasts as the saber-toothed tiger, the dire wolf, the giant ground sloth, and the woolly mammoth. Around thirteen thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age and shortly after the arrival of the first human hunter-gatherers, many of these species began to decline. Some persisted for millennia in isolated areas, but within a few thousand years most had disappeared. Species with the largest body masses were the first to go, and they went extinct at a much greater rate than did the smaller ones. Grizzlies ranked well down the size hierarchy of the Pleistocene megafauna, but they were one of the largest terrestrial animal species to survive the subsequent extinctions. By ten thousand years ago, they were the second-most-dominant land animals in California, after humans.
As late as the 1980s, many scholars of this period thought that California Indians did not have the capacity to challenge or control the grizzlies in their midst. This belief derived from scattered accounts by Spanish chroniclers who claimed that killing problem grizzlies proved their countrymen's benevolence toward the helpless natives. The Indians' supposed inability to control grizzlies was an example of their failure to civilize their country and thus contributed to a larger narrative of indigenous savagery and vulnerability that helped to justify colonization.
Recent scholarship on pre-Columbian environmental manipulation by indigenous people has revealed the self-serving absurdity of the Spaniards' claims. California before the Spanish was not a primeval wilderness; it was one of the most densely populated regions on the continent outside present-day Mexico, with human inhabitants who altered its environments through hunting, fishing, gathering, burning, and horticulture. Grizzly bears and people coexisted in uneasy proximity and often killed one another. But this was no balance of power. People almost certainly excluded bears from key resource sites, hunted them for food and ceremonial uses, and may even have culled their populations for community safety or to prevent raids on valuable resources. Grizzlies were formidable neighbors, but then as now, people ruled the land.